EU Directive on Animal Experimentation

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:14 pm on 27th March 2012.

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Photo of Damian Green Damian Green The Minister for Immigration 4:14 pm, 27th March 2012

By the time I sit down, I hope that I will have provided my hon. Friend with that reassurance. He, too, deserves congratulations, on taking legislation to that stage in the European Parliament, which I suspect is more complex and difficult than anything we try to do in this Parliament.

The Government are strongly committed to ensuring the best possible standards of animal welfare. Current legislation, as was rightly acknowledged by the hon. Member for Scunthorpe, provides that high level of protection: work cannot be licensed if it could be carried out without using animals, and the procedures must cause the minimum possible suffering to the smallest number of animals of the lowest sensitivity. That approach reflects closely what the public want. At the same time, animal experimentation continues to be a vital tool in developing health care improvements and in protecting man and the environment. The potential health and economic benefits from new and innovative treatments are dependent on providing the right framework for the UK’s life sciences sector and university research base, which are vital national assets and critical to our long-term economic growth, so we are determined to provide the right framework.

The transposition of the new European directive for the protection of animals used for scientific purposes provides us with a valuable and timely opportunity to review our own legislation governing experiments on animals. As has been pointed out, many requirements of the directive are similar to current UK legislation and practice. For example, it places a strong emphasis on minimising the use of animals and the promotion of alternatives. Some requirements go further than current UK legislation, most notably the introduction of mandatory minimum standards of care and accommodation for animals. Other requirements are potentially less stringent; the directive does not, as UK legislation does, provide special protection for cats, dogs and horses. Article 2 of the directive allows us to retain current stricter UK provisions as long as they do not inhibit the free market. The directive thus provides us with an opportunity to confirm the best aspects of current UK regulation and to make improvements where we can do better.

During 2011 we held a public consultation on options for transposition. I have slightly different figures from the hon. Gentleman, so I hope they are accurate. More than 13,000 individuals and 100 organisations responded, which clearly confirms a very strong interest in the topic. We are currently completing our analysis of the responses and will announce our decisions shortly—I hope shortly enough to leave proper time for parliamentary scrutiny, which the hon. Gentleman reasonably mentioned.

The directive clearly offers some opportunities, such as helping the work that we are already doing to promote the development of alternatives. The programme for government includes commitments to end the testing of household products on animals, and to work to reduce the use of animals in scientific research. The new directive assists with those objectives by strengthening the protection of animals used in scientific procedures, and promoting the three R’s: the development, validation, acceptance and implementation of methods and strategies that “replace, reduce and refine” the scientific use of animals.

The directive will also allow us to remove unnecessary bureaucracy where it still exists, and to build on the significant improvements we have already made in our day-to-day implementation of current legislation. We are planning to focus on simplifying the details of personal licences, and making further improvements to the project licence application process and to the format of the project licence. The directive requires member states to inspect animal research laboratories and breeders, but the minimum frequency of inspection is less than we currently practise. Many of the responses to our consultation commented on the strengths of our current inspection system, and clearly that is an issue of great interest to the hon. Gentleman.

We are committed to maintaining a strong and properly resourced inspectorate, and a full, risk-based programme of inspections. The relationship between inspectors, licence holders and animal care staff is crucial to the effective implementation of the regulatory framework, and we will not jeopardise that relationship. The hon. Gentleman referred to the current move to centralise the operation of the administrative part of the legislation in London. That does not apply to inspectors. Indeed, it has been confirmed that inspectors will continue to be located close to those they inspect. I hope that that provides the hon. Gentleman with some reassurance.

We are aware of the concerns that have been expressed that transposition will lead to a lowering of welfare standards for laboratory animals in the UK. That is not our intention, and we are determined not to weaken UK standards, but that does not mean retaining stricter UK standards when there is no clear evidence that they translate into better welfare, nor does it mean that we must put everything into the legislation if we can achieve the right outcomes by encouraging good practice. What we are looking for is the right balance. We must ensure that we can maintain and further enhance our high standards, but at the same time we must avoid putting UK research at a competitive disadvantage compared with our counterparts in other member states. For the Government, both are objectives for the transposition of the new directive.

I shall give some specific examples of our approach to transposition. We intend to retain higher UK standards when there is strong and broadly-based support or good evidence for their retention. I mentioned some of those earlier, but it is important to put them on the record, not least to reassure the hon. Gentleman. One example is that we propose to continue to provide special protection for cats, dogs and horses, as well as non-human primates, and will allow their use only when no other species is suitable or available. That was widely supported in our public consultation.

I turn to the specific subject of great apes. We will continue to prohibit the use of great apes. There has been concern—the hon. Gentleman expressed it earlier— that the directive weakens the protection of those animals by providing a derogation allowing their use in exceptional circumstances. I can assure him and the House that we foresee no circumstances in which we would use that derogation, and we will put the ban in the legislation, as he asked. That is a full assurance such as he sought.

We propose to retain protection for foetal and embryonic forms of birds and reptiles during the last third of their development. That is not a requirement of the directive, but we received persuasive evidence from the public consultation of the welfare benefits of giving the same protection to those species as will be given to mammals during their development stages. I hope that that will also be welcome. We were persuaded that the burden of providing that additional protection is proportionate to the benefit. That is the test we are operating. We also propose to retain a system of personal licences as a means of monitoring and ensuring the competence of those working with research animals.

The directive lists methods of humane killing that may be used without project authorisation. Our current UK legislation takes a similar approach as the directive in this area, but there are significant differences between the UK list of methods and that in the directive. Some methods listed in the directive are not currently permitted in the UK without specific authorisation. The differences have caused widespread concern, and we are minded to maintain the best of our current approach to humane killing. To take that forward, we have recently published a revised list of humane killing methods for consultation, and will incorporate only the best methods in our updated legislation. Again, I hope that that provides reassurance to the many people who are particularly concerned about this part of the directive.

Another issue of particular concern to many people is animal care and accommodation standards, specifically those examples in which current UK cage and enclosure sizes are greater than those required under the directive. For some, when there is good supportive evidence, we are minded to continue to mandate the UK dimensions. For others, the difference in dimensions may be so small as to make little difference to the welfare of the animals, but sufficient to add significantly to the costs for the life sciences community if they were retained, which would risk making the UK less competitive than other countries in Europe and beyond. Instead, we are considering ways of using the revision of our current UK code of practice on care and accommodation to encourage voluntary improvements in standards of housing.

The UK has a long tradition of housing animals in conditions that are better than those mandated in regulations—for example, the housing of non-human primates in the UK has significantly exceeded the minimum requirements for many years. Our approach has been driven by sound evidence from our welfare scientists, together with a willingness on the part of both the academic sector and industry to provide the best environment for our animals. We want to support that approach by encouraging the work of welfare scientists and the research community. As scientific evidence for higher standards emerges, we will expect our research community to respond.

On freedom of information, which the hon. Gentleman brought up at the start of the debate, most responders to the consultation recognise that section 24 in its current form is not compatible with the directive’s commitment to transparency, and many also recognise that it may be a barrier to the sharing of best practice and information on the three R’s. At the same time, personal details, intellectual property and commercial information will continue to require protection. We will consider how best to provide that protect under the new legislation, at the same time as meeting the aspiration to greater transparency.

The hon. Gentleman also brought up the issue of weighing pain against benefit. UK legislation already requires the Secretary of State to weigh the likely pain against the expected benefit, and in that regard the directive confirms current UK practice.

The hon. Gentleman referred to transport disruption. We have been working actively with the life sciences community and the transport sector to broker a commercial solution to provide a sustainable and resilient supply chain. That will be important to the future of the life sciences industry.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the use of non-human primates, and particularly the definition of a debilitating condition. We do not intend to define further what a debilitating condition is because we believe that that should be done on a case-by-case basis for each project licence application received. Using the current UK code of practice in that way to encourage voluntary improvements, particularly for housing, will lead to better standards. Overall, in addressing these sensitive issues, we believe that good welfare is fundamental to good science.

Animal experimentation is an area in which Government policy must recognise a wide range of opinions. Our current policy is based on the belief that there are real benefits to man, animals and the environment that can, at present, be achieved only with the use of animals, but it reflects the need for all animal use to be fully justified, and for animal suffering to be minimised. Any suffering must be carefully weighed against the potential benefits. Those are the foundations of our current legislation, and the directive provides us with the opportunity to build on them.

As I have said, my hon. Friend the Minister for Equalities and others will consider carefully—